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“He’ll shake your Rome about your ears.”—Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Yesterday, December 22, was the 50th birthday of Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton Wykeham Fiennes. I really didn’t want to let the day go by without some form of appreciation, even belatedly.

A successful stage actor, Fiennes didn’t make a film until he was 30. I’ve been a Fiennes fan since Schindler’s List.  Amon Goeth was not Fiennes’ first film role, but it was the one that got him noticed. His portrayal of the sadistic Nazi concentration camp commandant, based on an actual person who occasionally shot prisoners for sport, eventually earned him the number 15 spot on the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 50 Movie Villains.

I won’t go over his credits one by one or even list all of my favorites. I could say I’ll gloss over the unfortunate choices like Maid in Manhattan, but I want to say something about that.

In an interview last year with The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, Fiennes explained how he came to make a romantic comedy with Jennifer Lopez. It seems that, as I have often put forth, sometimes what the actors sign on for is not what we, as an audience, end up with. This is the case here. Fiennes thought he was making a romance with political and sociological undertones about class struggle. He certainly didn’t think his character would end up a slight, clueless ponce. (Although the presence of Jenny-from-the-Block should probably have alerted him to the fact that all was not as it should be.)

Let’s talk about his directorial debut, of which he was so proud that he actually made the rounds of the chat shows and sat for press interviews. (When was the last time that happened? I certainly don’t remember it, if it has.) Of course I’m talking about Coriolanus. While it debuted in NY and LA so that it was eligible for awards contention, Ralph, an actor famous for his interpretations of Shakespeare who won a Tony for playing Hamlet on Broadway, wasn’t content for just the right and left coasters to see his film. He wanted “the great flyover” to go out and see a movie based on an obscure bit of Shakespeare as well.  It was a tough sell and he knew it. I don’t think that mattered as much as the opportunity to show off his ‘baby’.

Having had the good fortune to see it in New York (on opening day to a gratifyingly full house), I could not  and can not recommend it highly enough. Yes, the Elizabethan language is intact, but the play itself has been pared down to its leanest and meanest. There are no spare words or gestures. Everything on screen is there for a reason. One shouldn’t deny themselves the pleasure of watching Fiennes visceral performance as the title character nor any of the performances of the enormously talented cast that he assembled. Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, Brian Cox, James Nesbitt and the great, the ethereal, the incomparable Vanessa Redgrave, all flocked to Fiennes’ no budget production of an obscure Shakespeare play filmed in Belgrade, just for the chance to be a part of Fiennes’ first foray behind the camera.

Louis Virtel in Movieline said this of Fiennes’ Coriolanus: “Ralph Fiennes’s directorial debut…its greatest asset: crackling performances. As the titular veteran who wears his moral conflict like an Egyptian death mask, Fiennes’ rage transcends mugging, warps into agony, and projects thunderous depth. Thunderous, I say! He’s so thoroughly and bleakly numbed to the strife and fanfare he abandons in war-torn ‘Rome’ that his grisly comeuppance in the movie’s final moments feels like something of a relief. You see, Fiennes’ performance is an internal bloodbath long before we’re confronted with a viciously Technicolor one — and if there’s any justice, he’ll be rewarded with the Best Actor nomination that he was snubbed for after Quiz Show.”

Alas, we know he was not. The film got lost between showier ponies like The Artist (also a product of The Weinstein Company, but Harvey does play favorites). Incredibly, he’s only been nominated for an Oscar twice. Once for Schindler’s List (he lost to Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive – yeah, tell me they don’t give those things out as “lifetime achievement awards”) and then for The English Patient. (Okay, so he lost to Geoffrey Rush in Shine. That’s a toughie.) I wasn’t a fan of that film when I saw it the first time. (I think it was the pacing. I don’t know what it was to be honest. I’ve watched it several times since, once quite recently, and I’ve grown to appreciate it. I have the patience for it now and can sit and let it wash over me. I appreciate the relationships much more. But I digress. Fiennes was brills no matter how you slice it.)

So often the quintessential proper Englishman, my personal favorite performance was as “Harry”, the violent, foul-mouthed Cockney gangster and family man in In Bruges. For those who may think Fiennes takes himself too seriously (although after watching him play Voldemort for years, I don’t see how anyone could), I would point them to In Bruges.

This year alone, Fiennes was on the big screen as the God Hades in Wrath of the Titans,  as Gareth Mallory in his 40th film in 20 years, Skyfall, thought to be a successor to Dame Judi Dench’s M, and with an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which he played Magwitch. (While the film has no US release date yet, it opened to mostly good reviews in the UK.) He then played the author himself and returned to the director’s chair, in a love story called The Invisible Woman about Dickens’ affair with the much younger Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) which will be out in 2013. His next two projects include an adaptation of Chekov’s “A Month in the Country” called Two Women and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Fiennes’ first love will always be theater and it is near the top of my personal “Bucket List” to see him on stage one day. Last year he managed to fit in a run at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket, as Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.  While fifty may once have been considered the age at which a man starts to slow down, thankfully those days are past. Ralph Fiennes at fifty does not appear to have any desire to do so.

‘Beseech you, sir, be merry; you have cause…”—Shakespeare, The Tempest

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